Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, (1571 – 1610)
Sacrifice of Isaac
Oil on canvas, 1603
104 cm × 135 cm (41 in × 53 in)
Uffizi, Florence, Italy
The Sacrifice of Isaac is the title of two paintings by the Italian master Caravaggio (1571-1610).
The second Sacrifice of Isaac is housed in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. According to the early biographer Giovanni Bellori, Caravaggio painted a version of this subject for Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII, and a series of payments totalling one hundred scudi were made to the artist by Barberini between May 1603 and January 1604. Caravaggio had previously painted a Portrait of Maffeo Barberini, which presumably pleased the cardinal enough for him to commission this second painting.
The artist thrusts the action to the front of the picture frame like a sculpted frieze. Old Abraham, with features reminiscent of the saint in the second St. Matthew, is intercepted in the act of slitting his son's throat by an admonishing angel who with his right hand prevents the sacrifice and with his left points to the substitute victim. Light directs the viewer to scan the scene left to right as it picks out the angel's shoulder and left hand, the quizzical face of Abraham, the right shoulder and terrified face of Isaac and finally the docile ram. A continuous movement links the back of the angel's neck to Isaac's profile.
Caravaggio combines a hint of horror with pastoral beauty. In the foreground the sharp knife is silhouetted against the light on Isaac's arm. In the distance is one of Caravaggio's rare landscapes, a glimpse perhaps of the Alban Hills round Rome and an acknowledgement of the skill of his one serious rival, Annibale Carracci, whose landscapes were particularly admired.
Isaac has been identified as Cecco Boneri, who appeared as Caravaggio's model in several other pictures. Recent X-ray analysis showed that Caravaggio used Cecco also for the angel, and later modified the profile and the hair to hide the resemblance.